How does one follow up a classic?
In the Spring of 1973, English progressive rock band Pink Floyd released Dark Side of the Moon, their eighth studio LP and their most ambitious to date. With tracks which flowed seamlessly, replete with cinematic sound effects, soul choirs, disembodied voices and a song-set which dealt with issues of success, the march of time and mental illness, the conceptual double album became one of best selling, most critically acclaimed and best loved progressive rock LPs of the 20th century – still cited as an all-time classic.
Two years later, the band released their follow-up. Wish you Were Here continued many of the themes explored in the earlier recording, but in more developed form. Predominantly a tribute to founder-member Syd Barrett, who had had become estranged from the band following a mental breakdown in 1968, possibly related to drug use. Less acclaimed than Dark Side, it has for many years languished in its shadow, only latterly being hailed in its own right.
Officially introduced two days prior to the Floyd’s 1975 opus, Jaguar’s XJ-S was also a reprise of a much-loved original. In a similar manner, fans of sporting Jaguars, not to mention the gentlemen of the press were beside themselves in anticipation of how Browns Lane would reinvent the classic E-Type, by then a shadow of its game-changing 1961 debutant.
The stunned disbelief for many was palpable. “Tank or Supercar?“, was how one UK weekly journal put it. Even within Jaguar itself, opinion was divided, dubbed “the barge” by track workers. Aside from the concept itself (Jaguar hadn’t offered an overt Grand Turismo before), the XJ-S’ appearance proved the major point of contention, with a large proportion of critics viewing the car’s styling in a negative light – an then unheard of complaint for a Jaguar.
And while Browns Lane’s representatives were at pains at launch to explain the principles which underpinned the car, it was clear that it was the result of a convoluted and somewhat torturous process – a matter covered in some considerable detail here. Less troubled however was the engineering programme for what was known internally as XJ27, once the architectural hard points were set towards the end of 1968.
The XJ27 programme was led by Jim Randle (reporting to Engineering Chief, Bob Knight), his first complete piece of work, which took place in conjunction with readying the V12 version of the XJ saloon for production. Utilising a shortened XJ platform (the rear axle line being moved forward 6.8 inches), as a starting point, there was in fact little commonality between the two bodies in white – XJ27 being considerably more torsionally rigid, owing to increased triangulation around the bulkhead, the shorter wheelbase and the substantial rear three-quarter pillars.
In terms of hardware, XJ27 was largely a straight lift from the XJ12 – with suspension, front and rear being largely identical apart from revised damper settings, anti-roll bar widths and alterations to valving for the power steering. Engine-wise, the 5343 cc V12 was carried over unchanged, apart from a Bosch-derived Lucas-made fuel injection system (also available on the saloon the same year).
With so much commonality with the saloons, proving was relatively straightforward, with only matters of suspension settings, bushings, handling and cooling requiring much fine-tuning at MIRA and elsewhere. The results however were worth it, since the car, despite its more sporting leanings, proved faster and even more refined in operation than the previously peerless XJ12 saloon.
Randle related to this author in 2016 how he was pursued at speed by photographers from Car magazine in 1973 while taking a partially disguised XJ27 prototype for a proving run on the M40. He recalled being cornered down a side road, while both he and a colleague standing around the car to ‘protect‘ it. Car later reported on the car’s phenomenal acceleration, speculating that it was sporting a 48-valve cylinder head.
Car‘s Mel Nichols latterly reported that having been left alone at Browns Lane during the early ’70s, he came across an XJ27 prototype under a dust sheet, and having examined the car beneath, concluded that Jaguar would never make a car that ugly. Upon being reminded of this, Randle was derisive – insistent that such a thing could never have occurred – it being policy never to leave journalists to their own devices around the factory. Still, why allow the facts interfere with a nice story?
One aspect to the car’s styling that was not to achieve fruition was the positioning of the rear screen. Unhappy with the vertical arrangement proposed, Randle requested the screen be raked back to harmonise with the rear sail panels. This was mocked up, but he failed to convince management to sanction what would have been an expensive piece of re-tooling.
While the technical side of the car’s development progressed relatively smoothly, XJ27’s body design was mired in indecisiveness and delay. Firstly, the car’s creative lynchpin, aerodynamicist, Malcolm Sayer succumbed to a heart attack in April 1970, leaving Jaguar’s inexperienced stylists to reinterpret his intentions on the car’s detail design.
In addition, the programme was delayed, firstly by parent, BLMC’s decision to prioritise models from the volume car division, and then by the effects of both the 1973 oil embargo, and the collapse of the BLMC business the following year, meaning a car which was supposed to be launched around 1973, in fact arrived some two years later.
Further uncertainty lay with the name. Initially to be badged XK -F (rejected as being more redolent of six-cylinder engines in the US market), Le Mans Coupé was also proposed and rejected before XJ-S (with a hyphen) was settled upon quite late in the day, allegedly the suggestion of Jaguar’s chief marketer, Bob Berry.
“10th September 1975: A black day for Modena, Stuttgart and Milan“, the advertising copy stated. While the initial introductory celebrations were believed to have been held at Longbridge (not at Browns Lane), the press launch took place in the UK’s Cotswolds, a picture-book scene of thatched cottages, oasthouses and dry stone walls. Hardly a place to fully extend a 150 mph GT, although the gentlemen of the press certainly gave it a go.
Knives were for the most part sheathed at the time, but report after report of Jaguar’s flagship would tell of a brilliantly conceived GT whose road behaviour, effortless performance and uncanny mechanical refinement was from the very top-drawer, but the undercurrent of ambivalence with its uncompromising appearance and poor detail finish could nevertheless be gleaned between the lines.
In a post-launch comparison against Mercedes’ C107 450 SLC, Car Magazine lauded the XJ-S’ road behaviour, refinement, ride quality and top-end performance, but the iconoclastic monthly handed victory to the better wrought, if significantly more expensive machine from Stuttgart-Sindelfingen – stating that it was almost as good, and probably worth the extra outlay.
Car it must be said, took against the XJ-S from the off, seemingly more out of petulance than journalistic rigour. Fellow monthly, Motor Sport was less biased, even if they too were unexcited by the styling or the press car’s detail finish – nor indeed were the automotive engineers they showed the car to while touring the major German carmakers.
Introduced into the US market the following year, the XJ-S, (marketed there as the S-Type), storied monthly, Road and Track carried out a Road Research Report in 1976, where they deplored Jaguar’s shift from outright performance machines to luxury cars “with an emphasis on refinement, complete silence, luxury, comfort and general opulence“. Nevertheless, they praised the Jaguar, saying it’s road behaviour “leaves little to be desired. It is fast, silent and responsive to the driver’s whim and will maintain a high average speed effortlessly“.
However, like their UK counterparts at Car, R&T cleaved to the view that the XJ-S was not quite la pur sang, suggesting that its styling was “a matter of personal opinion, but that one suspects that a committee has been at work” – the R&T journalist free-associating on received wisdom regarding Jaguar’s stylistic processes and responsibilities – one can see how these ill-founded ideas can take hold.
But as Jim Randle quipped from first-hand experience when we discussed the XJ-S in 2016, “it must have been a small committee!”
To be continued.